Thursday, January 04, 2007

First and last words on 2006

Happy New Year!

So, it's a few days into 2007 by now. I'm actually a little bit confused exactly how many days it's been, since we just traveled over the international date line on a flight to New Zealand. I flew out of Chicago on January 1st, and arrived in Christchurch NZ on January 3rd, after some 17 or 18 hours in the air. I'm still here with a group of South Pole Telescope collaborators, waiting to take a flight to Antarctica. Exciting way to start out 2007, eh?

It's only a few days into my trip, but already I have lots of stories. Before that, though, a few reflections on the last year are in order. 2006 was a big year for me, as well as for the SPT project! It was my first year working in the research field of observational cosmology, which turned out to be very different from the solar neutrino physics that I did during graduate school at the University of Washington. Professors and teachers often advertise that one of the best reasons for studying physics is how it trains you to approach new problems and teach yourself new skills on the fly. This year my work has relied almost entirely on those aspects of my training, since just about everything I've been doing has been new to me. I've been catching up on cosmology (the study of the contents, history, and evolution of the Universe), learning how to write software to interact with parts of the telescope hardware, becoming familiar with the bolometers that the SPT will use to detect light from the early Universe, learning how to cool these detectors down to temperatures less than half a degree above absolute zero, and planning how we will analyze and interpret the data from the finished telescope.

The month of December, 2006 was an especially intense period for the whole SPT team, and one that pushed my on-the-fly-physics skills about as hard as any time I can remember. A group of SPT scientists from the University of Chicago had already deployed to the South Pole Station to build the telescope itself (go look at the main SPT blog for some great stories about their work). Meanwhile, some large parts of the telescope remained in Chicago. At the very last minute, we decided to perform an extra set of tests on the equipment that we had in Chicago before shipping it to the pole. These tests involved cooling down the SPT optics cryostat with a test receiver cryostat attached, and studying how the whole system performed together. At the time, all of the local experts on the optics and test receiver cryostats had already departed for the pole. Several team members from other institutions flew in to Chicago to help out, and we had a lot of help from local graduate students Lindsey Bleem, Megan Roscioli, and Jonathan Stricker. But even with all the support, I still had a lot that I had to figure out on my own about how all of these different telescope parts worked. It was quite a challenge, but a great experience! Since I often spend most of my time doing computer programming, I sometimes forget just how fun it is to work with real things. The graduate students took lots of pictures and I'll find a good one to post here sometime soon.

While were working extremely hard to finish the tests in Chicago, we were following the progress of the telescope building effort at the pole. I was following things especially carefully, anticipating my own deployment to the telescope site this January. I'd heard lots of things about how challenging it is to work in Antarctica, so when I saw Tom's movie about the South Pole Station, I was surprised to see just how comfortable life seemed to be! One Saturday evening when I was working in the lab (when I was obviously tired and not thinking all that well), I borrowed a camera from Ken Aird and made a little movie in response. Showing that I have no shame whatsoever, this ill-thought bit of reporting is available for your amusement here.



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